Outstanding Engineering in the development of the Apollo Program Lunar Lander

The Apollo program that lead to the landings on the moon was a stunning engineering and program management feat. It simply boggles the mind the complexity of the mission, and the countless details that went into the development of the hardware, the software* and techniques and procedures that lead to Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man.

In some ways, the most complicated piece of equipment on the entire Saturn V/Apollo stack was the Lunar Module, or LM. Designed and built by Grumman, it was America’s first true spacecraft, in that it would never fly through the atmosphere, instead only in space. Without the need for aerodynamics, it had a truly unusual appearance, sometimes leading it to be called “the bug” or “the spider.” It was a two stage rocket that had to be capable of autonomous navigation from lunar orbit to the surface. It also had to serve as a base camp for astronauts for up to 72 hours, and then it had to be capable of ascending from the moon’s surface to lunar orbit and again rendezvousing with the Command Service Module under its own navigation.  It had to have its own power supply, be able to operate both in a shirt sleeve environment for the crew as well as depressurized and open to the vacuum of the moon’s surface. It had not one, but two hatches, to allow both for docking with the CSM, and to allow the astronauts to explore the surface of the moon. It was also the largest manned spacecraft built at the time.

It was, incredibly, designed well before anyone knew if rendezvous in low earth orbit was technically feasible, let alone in lunar orbit.

  Grumman, in close cooperation with North American Aviation and NASA built this incredible craft. I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie Apollo 13 where the LM served as a lifeboat to return the crew safely to home, stressing the LM in ways it was never intended to be used. To say that the engineers of Grumman built an incredible ship is an understatement.  Some of the finest engineering talent in the world focused on getting the LM just right.

Incredibly, well into the development of the LM, with most of the configuration well established, and production ready to begin, no one ever gave serious consideration to how the astronauts were supposed to get down from the LM to the lunar surface, and back inside after hopping around the moon.

Lander no ladder

Yes. That’s an astronaut holding a knotted rope. No ladder. Grumman and NASA actually even looked at a complicated block and tackle system by which astronauts would hoist themselves down and up. It took a while before it occurred to anyone to simply fasten a ladder from which Neil and 11 others could make a great leap for mankind.


*During the development of Apollo, when the engineers spoke of software, they actually generally meant the flight rules, switchology, and cockpit procedures the astronauts would use on the hardware. Software was already coined as a term for computer code in other areas, but doesn’t appear to have been in vogue in the program office for computer programming.

“Houston, Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.”

There were more than a few people holding their breath in Mission Control as Neil Armstrong piloted the Apollo 11 Lunar Module down to the surface of the moon. With only seconds of fuel remaining, he landed the longest one way trip ever undertaken. And of course, he was a Naval Aviator.